‘No judging, no questions asked’: Burnaby’s Ryan’s Rainbow is a food charity that fills plates and hearts
The food organization already hands out more than 200 food hampers every week, but they'll often go a step further for the community they serve.
In the basement of the former Cliff Avenue United Church in Burnaby’s Lochdale neighbourhood, Teresa Rasquinha passes out a large bag of donated granola mix to a patron.
“This is for your night shift. Keep it in your car, it’s the best thing ever,” offers Rasquinha. “It’s energy, you need the energy. Your son would like it too.”
Rasquinha has gotten to know her patrons well since founding the Ryan’s Rainbow Emergency Food Outreach in 2017, a food security organization in memory of Burnaby community leader Ken Ryan.
Rasquinha had first met Ryan through a volunteer opportunity with the Kensington Community Fair he had founded, and both Rasquinha and her daughter went on to build a close connection with Ryan through years of volunteer work with the fair.
Shortly before Ryan passed away in 2017, Rasquinha paid him a visit in hospice, and Ryan asked if Rasquinha would take over the yearly Christmas food hamper program he had also led.
Rasquinha agreed, and what started as a continuation of an annual Christmas hamper program has since turned into a 100% volunteer-run weekly donation and distribution drive, with Ryan’s Rainbow now handing out over 200 food hampers every week.
As more individuals have come to learn about the program, Rasquinha’s ties to the community have only grown stronger.
“We get to not only know them, we get to love them,” says Rasquinha. “We get to see their kids day after day. And so when the kids walk in, they come to say hi to us. So it’s not just a food bank.”
Every week, Rasquinha and her team assemble hampers of both fresh and non-perishable food, handing them out to individuals and families in need throughout the community. Patrons can also find free donated clothing available if need be.
Rasquinha says that Ryan’s Rainbow has seen a steadily growing clientele over the years, especially since the pandemic. And while this may seem concerning, Rasquinha remains optimistic and feels that the increase in demand is a good sign that word of Ryan’s Rainbow is getting out into the community.
“It’s only of late that people have been coming in to check on us. Nobody had a clue we existed. We used to just go under the radar and do what we had to do, because it’s our community,” says Rasquinha.
The growing buzz about Ryan’s Rainbow has not only led to higher demand, but to more financial support and food donations as well. For example, part of what allows Rasquinha’s team to give out fresh food in their hampers was a $3,700 donation from the Parkland Refineries Union covering the cost of a commercial refrigerator, as well as Save-On-Foods donating a weekly truckload of food from some of their locations.
“[Teresa] didn’t feel like the cans were healthy enough,” says volunteer lead Mary Anne Guzzo. “I mean, it’s a good fallback, but you want the fresh foods: vegetables, milk, cheese, eggs.”
Guzzo has been with Ryan’s Rainbow since 2018, having heard about it through a friend at the Burnaby Neighbourhood House. Over time, Guzzo’s volunteer role has grown to second-in-command, working anywhere from two to eight hours every day between donation days on Mondays and distributions on Thursdays.
While some people come to volunteer with the organization by hearing about it through word-of-mouth, Guzzo says that she’s even seen former patrons coming to volunteer after getting back on their feet, in part through the help of Ryan’s Rainbow.
Volunteers or otherwise, Guzzo says that patrons are often eager to become independent after receiving a helping hand.
“And when they do they’re very proud that, you know, ‘this is the last box that I’m picking up,’” says Guzzo. “They’re proud, and we’re proud at the same time, because now they can go on their own.”
In that regard, Guzzo and Rasquinha agree that Ryan’s Rainbow is meant to go a step further than just being a food bank: it’s also about encouraging and helping people to get back on their feet.
“We connect them with resources, because our main goal is that you shouldn’t be coming to a food bank for more than six months,” says Rasquinha.
While the offer for food support is limited, it comes with the sincere offer of help from Rasquinha in other ways. Sometimes she will facilitate connecting patrons with representatives from Douglas College, or to other resources like Work BC.
But it’s not uncommon for Rasquinha to go even further if need be.
Many of those supported by Ryan’s Rainbow have recently immigrated or are refugee families, so Rasquinha will often hear from parents of young children about the challenges of navigating the settlement process, especially when they’re already struggling to make ends meet.
Drawing on her own experience with immigration—Rasquinha came to Canada from Mumbai with her family in the 90s—she will often step in directly to help parents out with the immigration process, which in turn ensures children are properly registered and ready to receive an education.
“We take it upon ourselves,” says Rasquinha. “That could mean getting in touch with immigration lawyers to send paperwork to get kids in school.”
Other times, families might need even greater assistance in managing medical challenges. Going a big step further than most food banks, Rasquinha says that Ryan’s Rainbow will sometimes cover the cost of key medications for children whose families can’t afford it.
“We have a family that comes in: the daughter is 12 and she has macular degeneration. So she’s getting blind and she’s only in Grade 8. So we pay for the medication,” says Rasquinha. “And then we have another little boy who’s coming from Winnipeg, his medical papers haven’t moved so we pay for his autistic medicine.”
Whether it’s learning the goings-on of her volunteers and patrons, or going a step further to make an impact on a young one’s life, Rasquinha feels that the value of Ryan’s Rainbow is found not just in the impact it has on patrons’ food security, but in how it allows a neighbourhood to come together as a community.
“We help anyone in need, even if it means going the extra mile,” says Rasquinha. “No judging, no questions asked. It is just pure empathy for fellow human beings.”